Murari Sharma: Dream come true?

Imagine how you would feel if you waited for something for decades but when it arrived, some of your brothers and sisters did not like it. Excitement and frustration simultaneously.

The Nepali people have been feeling that predicament today. They have waited for 65 years for a constitution written by their elected representatives. Such a charter — Constitution of Nepal 2015 — has been finally promulgated today, on 20 September, by President Ram Baran Yadav. Most people seem happy, but some are clearly agitated.

The demand for a people-written statute has been around since 1950. King Tribhuvan had, at the time of removing Rana oligarchy, promised to call elections for a constituent assembly, but that did not transpire.  Kings gifted the statute on their own — Tribhuvan in 1951, King Mahendra in 1959 and 1962 and King Birendra in 1990.

Although the 1990 document was written by a group of political leaders, who were instrumental in forcing King Birendra to abandon the party-less panchayat system and embrace multiparty democracy, they were not elected by the people at that time.

Only the political change of 2006 opened the door to a constituent assembly afresh. It also immediately led to the suspension of the monarchy, which was abolished by the assembly in 2008. Unfortunately, the first assembly died in 2013 without delivering the law of the land, owing to major disagreements on several issues.

Federalism stood at the heart of such disagreements. Some outfits opted for several ethnic states, while others for a few multi-ethnic states. The dispute failed and destroyed the first assembly. The second assembly, elected in 2013, has been able to sort out the issue providing for seven states, though not everyone likes them.

Five things put pressure on Nepali leaders to deliver the constitution this time around.

First, the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), which preferred a few multi-ethnic states, secured nearly two-thirds majority in the assembly and formed a coalition government with smaller parties, enhancing their number and confidence to sail the charter to the finish line.

Second, both Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and UML leader KP Oli were personally men in a hurry. The ailing Koirala wanted to promulgate the statute on his watch. The ailing Oli wanted to become premier before his health compromised his ambition. Therefore, Koirala and Oli promised each other support to realize their respective ambitions.

Third, the devastating chain of earthquakes and aftershocks in April and May this year — they killed nearly 10,000 people, destroyed nearly 7 billion rupees worth of property and affected one-third of the country’s population — spurred the coalition to switch to a high gear. When the people and country destroyed by the natural calamity were crying for relief and reconstruction, it was in bad taste for the leaders to quibble over the fine prints of the charter.

Fourth, the Maoist leader Prachand cooperated with the coalition to protect himself from being marginalized further, to neutralize his pesky deputy Baburam Bhattarai, and to preserve as many agendas of his party as possible before monarchists, Hiduists, extreme leftists and secessionists hijacked them.

Fifth, external players — countries and organizations — piled pressure to tilt the constitution in favor of their respective clients in Nepal, in a way that threatened the power base of the main leaders. India openly lobbied on behalf of the minority parties from the plains. Christian organizations lobbied against any compromise on secularism.

Consequently, the constitution became a priority for the Big Three parties. These parties made compromises and agreements leading to the approval of the new statute. It would have been unquestionably ideal if all parties had agreed on the document and everyone in Nepal had welcomed it. However, that did not happen. Such lobbying created a situation of ‘now or never.’

Based on the celebrations in most parts of the country, it seems that most people liked the new statute, even though it is far from perfect. But some parties and people, mostly in the plains, found it unacceptable because it, as they argue, does not meet their demands and aspirations.

They have hit the street in protest. Some have abandoned the constituent assembly and joined forces that always opposed the assembly. Others too have joined protests. In the ensuing violence, nearly three dozen people — including eight security officials — have lost their lives.

The plains have been shut for nearly a month now. The army has been mobilized and curfew has been imposed in several places to control violence. People have had terrible difficulty going about their daily business. Schools have been closed. Hospitals have been attacked.

Both the pro-constitution and anti-constitution parties have blamed each other for this situation. The former have contended that the latter have become the instruments of the anti-constitution forces. The latter have accused the former of not listening to their genuine grievances.

Under the surface, the new charter is personally offensive to naturalized citizens of Nepal — such as Rajendra Mahato — for it prevents them from holding certain top posts, something that was allowed in the Interim Constitution.

There is some truth on both sides. The big parties did not wait until the minority parties were exhausted to come to the negotiating table to resolve the differences. The minority parties thought India would intervene on their behalf. New Delhi did by sending the Indian foreign secretary to Nepal, but it was already too late.

Constitution is not a Bible or Quran, written in stone; it is a living document that can be changed, as time and need necessitate. In the days ahead, both sides should show maximum flexibility and find a common ground for peace in Nepal. Neither bullying by the majority nor terrorizing by the minority will bring peace and reconciliation in the country. The discords, including on federalism could be sorted out, in the future.

Nepal has waited for so long for a constitution written by the people’s representatives. Now that it is in our hand, we should find a way to rally around it despite its flaws, which can be removed gradually.

I congratulate the Nepali people for the new constitution.

Everyone is better in advising others

Murari Sharma

Conventional wisdom says those who live in glass houses should not pelt stones at others. But if you are big and powerful, you can put the wisdom upside down and constantly throw boulders at others’ door. Take the USA in the world and India in South Asia.

India, the elephant in the South Asia room, has been chaotic politically ever since its independence from Britain. The partition, three wars over Kashmir, Khalistan, continued Bodo, Naga and Naxalite problems, war with China, Assam uprising, Gorkhaland agitations, frequent communal riots, to name a few crises.

Gujarat, the home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been in the eye of storm at least twice in last 15 years. The  Patels have currently been agitating for a caste-based quota for their relatively wealthy business clan. Nearly a dozen people have been killed in the related violence, but the government has refused to concede.

In 2002, Modi as chief minister presided over Hindu-Muslim communal riots  in Gujarat that killed more than 2,000 people.

Neither India nor Modi appreciate external intervention in their internal affairs. Be it a suggestion to accommodate the Patel clan’s demand for the quota, to talk to the Kashmiri rebels or to protect minorities from majority excesses. I am sure Modi hated western countries for denying him a visa or ostracizing him in other ways over his dubious role during the Gujarat riots.

Curiously, the same Modi lost no time to exhort Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to accommodate the demands of some Madheshi parties, in a clear interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. His home minister went several steps ahead and announced, in his own words, “India will safeguard the interest of 10 million Indians living in Nepal.”

Sure Koirala should have talked to Madheshi leaders on his own. But that does not justify Modi’s and his home minister’s intervention, which is objectionable at least on three different levels. First, Madheshis are Nepalis. They are not Indians living in Nepal. Surprisingly, only a few Madheshi leaders objected to the Indian home minister’s highly derogatory statement for them.

Second, both Nepal and India are wedded to Panchasheel, the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Accordingly, Nepali leaders have rarely, if at all, inserted themselves in India’s internal affairs. They did not open their mouth in direct or indirect support of Gorkhaland demanded by the Nepali speaking Indians. You may say who would listen even if they said something, but it is also a question of principle.

Third, how would Modi feel if Koirala exhorted him to meet the Patels’ demand, accommodate the Kashmiris people’s will or concede the Gorkhaland demand, in a quid pro quo. If you want respect from others, your should respect them as well.

To be fair, Modi is not the first Indian leader to interfere in Nepal’s issues; he has only continued the vapid, old tradition. Besides, he was invited by our Madheshi leaders to intervene. And if every Tom, Dick and Harry representing the western countries finds himself qualified enough to stick out his neck, why not Modi?

Yet the question of principle remains. Modi is, therefore, guilty of breaching Panchasheel, flouting the golden principle — do to others what you expect from them — and engaging in gratuitous paropadeshe pandityam — wiser in advising others than doing it himself.

Nepal’s commentariat is guilty of such pandityam as well. Most pundits have never been in politics; neither have they had the experience of running any organization — forget a country. Yet they dish out their vacuous wisdom generously as if they knew politics inside out.  This is their omniscience run amok.

Its consequences are obvious for everyone to see. The high priests often offer simplistic and impractical solutions for complex issues. For instance, they say only the Big Two — Nepali Congress and UML — must show flexibility and compromise for consensus over the draft constitution, not smaller parties. It takes two sides to tango, though the Big Two should take the lead, for power comes with responsibility.

I am sure our wise heads are fully aware that Nepal is one of the most divided countries on earth. Perhaps no other country of our size has as many political parties as we have. Yet our high priests suggest that the Big Two, Three or Four — at different times — can bring on board nearly 100 parties with conflicting ideas, 125 ethnic groups with different priorities, and 28 million people by showing a little more flexibility.

All this however does not exculpate the Big Two, Three or Four of their failure to lead. Their imperious ad hocism has been appalling. They first approved six states without explaining the basis — ethnicity, geography, viability, political demand. At the first whip of discontent, they swiftly opted for a seven-state model, again without expounding the underlying logic.

If the Big Ones had based their decisions on some coherent logic, real facts and established process, they could have explained their agreement away more easily. The smaller parties that have hit the street too would have found it more difficult to justify their opposition.

The public does not care about federalism. Two recent public opinion surveys and the public consultation over the draft constitution have manifested it. Minority leaders need states to rule. Federalism will not be a panacea to Nepal’s poverty and instability, but it is worth trying.

The Big TWo, Three or Four have failed in their leadership, partly they themselves have differences and partly they have shunned the participatory decision-making process.

Part of the trouble now is that minorities have conflicting territorial claims for their states. The Big Ones could sort it out by bringing the Madheshi and Limbu leaders together and resolve their mutual claims over Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari or the united-farwest group and Tharus over Kailali and Kanchanpur, the key contentious points.

This is a simple measure that could help resolve the complex problem. If it does, it will not hurt anyone. Granted, neither negotiations nor solutions are as straightforward as they look from outside.

Yet, dialogue paves the ground for understanding the severity of the problem in hand and for give and take. The best outcome of negotiation is one that makes everyone almost equally unhappy.

More states may easily resolve the problem, but that is not a viable option. Already, seven states are too many. They will eat up most of the revenue for administrative costs, leaving little or nothing for investment in development. But if there is any prospect to go back to the six-state model, why not.

Oscar Wilde’s has said, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.” I have passed it on. But I am aware, as John Steinbeck has said, “You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.”

Our leaders may dismiss the panditocracy’s paropadeshe pandityam, but what about Indian leaders‘. Conventional wisdom gets often beaten in politics and power play.